by Ellen Rothman
In late August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I was lying in a hospital bed in Boston getting nasty medicine through an IV line and receiving all nourishment through another tube. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself until I turned on the generally useless TV and saw what was – and was not – happening in New Orleans. The images of desperate people on rooftops, the misery at the Superdome, water flooding into Charity Hospital made me wonder if my illness and the treatment I was receiving for it were causing me to have delusions. Alas, the devastation was all too real.
It never occurred to me then that the Jews of New Orleans were suffering. If I was even aware that New Orleans had a large Jewish community with deep roots in the region, I assumed that Jewish homes, synagogues, schools were all on high ground, safe from the toxic water that was wrecking African-American neighborhoods. This was not the case as you can see from these pictures on Flickr, collected as part of “Katrina’s Jewish Voices” (KJV), the Jewish Women’s Archive project to document the Jewish community’s experience during and after the storm. While Jewish New Orleans was spared the near-total annihilation of the Lower Ninth Ward, Jewish families were displaced, homes flooded, synagogues destroyed, Torahs damaged beyond repair.
It certainly never occurred to me then that within two years, I would be working for the Jewish Women’s Archive and helping prepare for a Board meeting in New Orleans that would include a presentation on “Katrina’s Jewish Voices.” By the time the JWA Board met in New Orleans, I was lucky enough to be healthy again. The people of the Gulf Coast would have a much longer recovery. The city we visited in January of 2008 showed signs of the spirit that makes it such a special and well-loved place, but the extent of the physical devastation was shocking. Not just in the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward but in the crumbling shell of the Beth Israel Congregation.